Thursday, January 2, 2014

Chapter 5

September 1st is the first day of school. A strange choice, since it is also the anniversary of Hitler's invasion of Poland. But, it had always been that day and apparently no war can change that. I'll be attending third grade in the sparkling-new elementary school right in front of our house. The school is the result of the "Thousand Schools for the Millennium" - communist party directive to celebrate the thousand years of Polish statehood (long interruptions included) by building a thousand new schools all over Poland.

My school's official name is "Ernesto (Che) Guevara" and a giant photo of the bearded Cuban revolutionary adores the first floor hallway. A couple of years later, when Fidel Castro visits Poland, he makes a brief stop at our school. I'm snatched from the hallway by one of the teachers and shoved into a small assembly room, where, with a couple dozen other pupils, I am to meet Fidel. Thankfully, it's not a long wait. Here comes a bearded fellow - older, plumper, and less good looking than Che, I notice - in military uniform, with a small entourage including an interpreter. Through this interpreter he tells us a few funny stories, of which I recall only one:

"I am being driven to an important meeting in a cavalcade of official cars, when I spot a group of boys playing volleyball in a field at the side of the road. You have to know that I love volleyball, so I tell my driver to stop the car and he does so immediately. I'm his boss, you see. I jump out and ask the boys whether I can join them. Fine, they say, and so we play together for a few moments. Meanwhile, all my security guards are in panic mode, because such a thing never happened before. A leader of a country does not go play volleyball with some random boys. They beg me to go back to the car. They are all very nervous and I feel sorry for them, so I go back".

It's all friendly banter like this. I find Fidel charming. He seems relaxed, funny, approachable. Says that being here with us is a welcome break from all his official duties in Poland. He would like to stay longer, because he is more himself around children - still a kid at heart. Of course, I have no idea that he is a dictator and even if I knew, I wouldn't quite know what that meant. He invites us all to visit Cuba. I think that it would be great, but it will probably never happen, because getting there must be very expensive. More than forty years later, I still haven't been to Cuba, but it is not the expense that's keeping me away.

After Fidel is whisked away, the school day is already over and I find the lunch room closed. I will go home hungry. Another thing I did not know about Fidel is that he will develop a penchant for rambling speeches that last for hours. In that sense we're lucky that this entire visit took less than an hour. The next day I find out from a fellow student that it was pork chop in horseradish sauce for lunch, and that makes me kind of grateful to Fidel for giving me an excuse not to eat that. These lunches are provided by the school, but parents have to pay for them. Mostly they are quite good, home-style meals prepared by two cooks on site, but I dread the meat days. I am not a vegetarian, I can handle ground meat in breaded cutlets, but I cannot swallow meat that has fatty tissue and gristle, and these pork chops are mostly that. I am prone to gagging when my mouth comes in contact with this kind of meat. Alas, you cannot simply leave that on your plate; you have to carry your plate back to the kitchen window before you are allowed to leave the lunch room, and there you have to pass by the chief cook, who inspects your plate. The chief cook is a large, morose woman who never smiles and accepts no excuses for not finishing the meal your parents paid their hard earned money for. If she is in good mood, she will let you pass with a spoonful of mashed potatoes on your plate, nothing more, so I sometimes resort to hiding my meat under those potatoes. Of course, she is too clever and experienced for that lousy trick, so it only works when there is a larger group of kids coming back with their plates - her hawkish eyes darting between multiple plates, she may miss me sneaking by with a suspiciously large mound of potatoes. On other occasions I'm reduced to pleading with her, showing her the gristle from which I meticulously removed the smallest meat fibers. She will carefully inspect that tangle of cartilage with my fork and, with a grunt, she may let me through. Another trick is to hide the gristle in your mouth, but for some mysterious reason she's usually able to spot kids carrying such payloads and have them spit those out (and then eat them in front of her). With my gagging reflex I won't even attempt that trick.

I like my school. It is airy, with big hallways, lots of windows, and a large, paved patio in the middle, where we can spend the long recess in the warmer months. It is also a progressive school, so corporal punishment is nearly nonexistent, except in the music room. Of course, the teachers can drag you from your desk by your ear and deposit you in the hallway for misbehavior - where you run the risk of being spotted by the roaming principal and getting into real trouble - but that's the extent of physicality most teachers allow themselves. The music teacher, Mr. Dejmek, does not bother with putting his students in the hallway, yelling at them, or writing notes to parents. He gives them two simple options: "Auntie" or "Uncle". The former is a wooden ruler, and the latter, a violin bow. You stretch your hand out, palm up, and the implement you have chosen cuts through the air with a swish, depositing a red welt on your palm. Woe to those weak characters who withdraw their palm at the last moment, for they will have to go through that again and again, until the punishment is administered thoroughly.

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